There are some places we have never visited whereof, nevertheless, we have in mind preconceived images, captured from movies, books, or conversations. Before I came to Sweden, my preconceptions of it were sketchy at best: the only piece of fiction set in this country that I can recall having read was a single, typically odd story by Robert Aickman (whose work I have briefly mentioned before), entitled ‘Into the Wood.’ The story’s protagonist, Margaret Sawyer, accompanies her husband Henry to Sovastad, a lakeside town in central Sweden, where he has been contracted to work in a project to build a ‘big, wide, dangerous, costly road … across the mountains into Norway.’
One Sunday, on a drive from the town up into the nearby mountains, Margaret catches sight of an isolated building, and, upon enquiring of it, is told by her Swedish hosts that it is a Kurhus or Sanatorium, albeit one ‘not only for the sick:’ a place for ‘rest cures.’ When Henry is called away to Stockholm for a series of meetings, Margaret, intrigued by its appealingly elegant façade, opts to stay at the Kurhus rather than at one of the town’s hotels. Rising from an uncharacteristic daytime nap after her arrival, she emerges into an all-but deserted building. and wanders it a little lost until, from its terrace, she sees a fellow-guest approaching from the surrounding forest: this happens to be another Englishwoman, who tells Margaret a good deal more about the Kurhus and its residents.
The Jamblichus Kurhus (named after the first of the ‘seven sleepers of Ephesus’ to rise) is an establishment for chronic insomniacs, some of whom are so severely afflicted that they never sleep at all. Such extraordinary sleeplessness makes its sufferers ill-suited to life in the wider world, and, as ‘sleepers cannot live for long with an insomniac … it is like living with something supernatural,’ many of them eventually resort to such specialist sanatoria. It is explained that the Kurhus is set in a special wood, through which run innumerable paths, which have been trodden by the sleepless for centuries. After resting through the afternoon, the insomniacs rise before dinner, and spend most of the night following these paths through the wood.
Margaret tries following one of these paths for herself, and, as she haphazardly pursues a criss-crossing way between the trees, she is struck by an epiphany of sorts: a simultaneous rejection of the things her roadbuilding husband and suburban neighbours stand for, along with a vaguely-felt yearning for transcendence, symbolized by the ‘empty but labyrinthine’ forest. To cut a short story shorter, Margaret returns to Sovastad (which, translated, literally means ‘Sleeptown’), to find herself feeling altogether out of place, and, inexplicably, quite unable to sleep. When the time comes for them to leave Sweden, Margaret persuades Henry to let her return to stay at the Kurhus indefinitely…
This story came back to my mind during our vacation last week, as the house where we stayed adjoined a very beautiful expanse of woodland: just one inlet, in effect, of what amounts to an all-surrounding sea of trees in that part of the country. Unlike the woods around Aickman’s Kurhus, these were clearly seldom traversed, being crossed here and there by old, low stone walls, by felled, mossy trunks, or blocked with thickets. Even so, it wasn’t hard for me to feel a faint something of that transcendence he hints at, as I stopped to admire a sunlit clearing after squeezing through mushroomy, spiderwebbed undergrowth.
We enjoyed a fine, peaceful while at the house, whose walls were decorated with rusty old garden tools on one hand, but which was elsewhere adorned with images & figurines of ghosts: one felt that here perhaps were two decorative personalities locked in unresolved opposition. We explored the vicinites of Osby, Markaryd, and Älmhult; I finished reading Neil Kenny’s The Uses of Curiosity (see below), and skimmed rapidly through the three volumes of the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, before taking up Denton Welch’s short novel In Youth is Pleasure. I did some cooking, took a few photographs & slept like a log.
We enjoyed some hot, sunny weather at the start of the week, but then, on Wednesday, were overtaken by a storm-front bringing with it torrential rain, and trailed by cooler and cloudier days.
Dreams are misleading, because they make life seem real.—R. A.